Where Does the Phrase “Spill the Beans” Come From?

"Spill the beans" is a common idiom, but why are beans being spilled?

If you’ve ever been told a secret and then accidentally revealed it, or spoiled a surprise, you’ve likely heard the phrase “spill the beans.” But why beans, and why were they spilled?

“Spill the beans” meaning

The phrase “spill the beans” means to reveal information that was meant to be kept private. An example of it in a sentence is: “He spilled the beans about the surprise party.”

“Spilling the beans” origins

There are a few possible explanations for where “spill the beans” came from. One explanation dates back to ancient Greece when people would use beans to vote anonymously. White beans were used for positive votes, and for negative votes, black beans or other dark-coloured beans were used. These votes were cast in secret, so if someone knocked over the beans in the jar—whether by accident or intentionally—they “spilled the beans” and revealed the results of the votes prematurely.

Having the expression date back to ancient Greece is nice in theory, but where does it show up in modern times? According to the Phrase Finder, an early example of “spill the beans” has been found in the United States from The Stevens Point Journal in June 1908:

“Tawney, when he came to congress, wasn’t welcomed within the big tent. He had to wait around on the outside. Then the blacksmith [Jim Tawney] got busy. He just walked off the reservation, taking enough insurgent Republicans with him to spill the beans for the big five.”

“Spill the beans” in this instance was akin to “upset the applecart” or “spoil the beans,” a nod to the voting system in ancient Greece. Another instance of “spill the beans” in the 20th century was found in October 1911 in The Van Wert Daily Bulletin:

“Finally Secretary Fisher, of the President’s cabinet, who had just returned from a trip to Alaska, was called by Governor Stubbs to the front, and proceeded, as one writer says, to ‘spill the beans’.”

Shortly thereafter, the phrase “spill the beans” came to mean “upset a previously stable situation by talking out of turn,” which is similar to the modern use of the phrase.

Phrases similar to “spill the beans”

Phrases that mean something similar to “spill the beans” include:

  • Letting the cat out of the bag
  • Leaking a piece of information
  • Squealing

Now, when someone says they “spilled the beans,” you know what exactly they mean and where the phrase came from.

Next, check out 20 funny phrases that are definitely worth memorizing.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest